Take Back the Conversation: Indigenous Women & Domestic Violence

Posted October 17, 2016 by Cyndi Bergloff

Content warning: Domestic Violence, Sexual violence

When considering possible options for this month’s blog post, I struggled with finding ideas. I wondered how I would begin. Do I want to start broad? Or talk about something specific?

While scrolling through Facebook, I saw a status from a near friend of mine, who shared her personal story of domestic violence recognizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness month. I was inspired by her story and her passion to prevent this from happening to others.

Her story made me realize that this was a subject that I also wanted to shed light on.  During my childhood,  I saw domestic violence tear my family apart and really affected me in my younger years.

I come from a mixed race family, with my father being white and my mother being Native, from the Grand Traverse Band Ottawa Nation. I have lived most of my life in Chicago and Milwaukee, spending much of my time in the Indigenous community.

In the recent incidents of missing Indigenous women in Canada, I began to research more information about the violence against women in Indigenous communities.  The information that I  found was appalling.

Violence against Indigenous women is not an event that is isolated in just Canada. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Below is the information I found in regards to domestic violence in Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada.

 

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(Photo Cred: YWCA)

Okay so what is happening?

According to the National Congress of American Indians  thirty percent of Native women in the United States will be raped in their lifetime, forty percent will experience domestic violence and are murdered at a rate of ten times the national average.

Now while these statistics are high, study done by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police shows that Indigenous women, though they make up only 4.6% of the Canadian female population, represent over 16% of murdered women and 11.3% of the missing women from 1980-2012.

These two studies show that Indigenous women in North America face alarmingly high rates of violence and show while the population of Native women is low in the population; the numbers of Indigenous women who face violence are disproportionately higher in than these other populations.

 

What does this all mean? Why is this happening?

Specifically in the United States, seventy percent of the violence Indigenous women face is actually done by non-native people. There are studies that show that gender based violence in the Native community go as far back as the Trail of Tears*. A study done by Amenesty USA, says that Native communities prior to colonization, severely punished anyone who caused any sort of violence against the women in their community.

With this historical oppression lens, we can look through the possible contributions to this event. To begin, there is an over sexualization of Native women, specifically within Hollywood and college campuses. Examples of this include the use of Native Headresses in a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the over 1000 images on Pinterest to create a “sexy indian.” This often will lead to the idea that Native women are an exotic commodity.

In addition, in both Canada and the United States there is a large amount of women who are victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. While large amounts of data have yet to be compiled regionally, several individual cities do have human trafficking statistic. Within Vancouver British Columbia, Native women in 2006-2008 made up forty eight percent of the sex trade. Even more heartbreaking is nearly seventy five percent of juvenile trafficking cases in Minneapolis Minnesota were Native girls, even though Native people only make up two percent of the population. Many women are manipulated to remain in these trafficking situations for sources of stability including: safety of their family, access to drugs/ alcohol or a place to stay.

What is being done?

This is a very complex issue within the United States because of the court systems related to these matters. When a Native woman reports a domestic violence situation to law enforcement, the preceding actions depend on a number of variables including: where the actions took place, are the victims Native or non-native, and are the perpetrators Native or non-Native? The answers to these questions would decide if local law enforcement, tribal law enforcement or the Federal Bureau of Investigation are involved. To make things more complicated, in a 1978 decision called Oliphant v. Suquamish, it was decided that tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Natives. In the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a tribal court may override Oliphant v. Suquamish to sue a non-Native person in the instance of domestic violence.

Currently, Canada is running an inquiry into the violence against Indigenous women. Many of the people who are on the committee are people from Canada’s Indigenous communities. While not every community is represented, the goal is for the greater good. The inquiry is aiming to find root causes for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. They will do this by looking at the systemic factors that may lead to these incidences, while also considering the role of institutions brought by colonialism, including police and child welfare.

 

What can be done?

First, take the time to understand why culturally competent education about Native People is important. There are several resources including the new Native Lives Matter curriculum which was created by People of Color online classroom.

Do not be afraid to call people in when they are continuing to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Native people. We need the community to know that Native people are still present, and are facing these issues. Those who perpetuate these negative stereotypes may not understand the long term effects of their actions. It can be exhausting, and often traumatic  for people from the Indigenous communities to continue to educate others. When our brothers and sisters support us in solidarity by educating others, these communities can focus on these issues.

Know where there are local resources for Native people who may need help. Take some time, research those offices and hotlines and save that information on your phone. You never know when someone might need it. Resources will vary from place to place.

Most importantly, remember silence is violence. Please, if you see something, say something.

 

National Domestic Violence Hotline (US): 800-799-SAFE (7233)

 

*The Trail of Tears is the given name of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which took several Native tribes from the East and South and forcibly removed and displaced them in Oklahoma. The result was over 4000 deaths of Indigenous people.